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Michael Bennet followed his heart to the mayor's office

Published November 29, 2003 at midnight

As openings go, it wasn't exactly grand.

It was September 1997. Michael Bennet, an out-of-work attorney on the verge of getting married and moving to Colorado, was looking for a job.

On the advice of a friend, he wrote to a brewpub owner in Denver named John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper, Bennet had heard, thought "outside the box."

And the two men shared something in common: They'd both graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Bennet noted the link in his first sentence. Then he got to the point.

"Although I am a lawyer, I am trying to think broadly about what I would do next, and am exploring particularly whether my set of experiences and skills would be of interest to anyone in the investment or business community," Bennet wrote. They apparently weren't of interest to Hickenlooper. Bennet didn't hear back.

Fast-forward six years.

Hickenlooper is Denver's mayor. Bennet, baby-faced and unassuming, walked away from the business world — and millions of dollars — to make $101,172 a year as chief of staff.

That after six whirlwind years working for billionaire businessman Philip Anschutz, helping engineer lucrative oil and movie-theater deals, making himself wealthy in the process.

To some, trading the business world's deal-making and big bucks for municipal government's long hours and petty infighting seemed shocking.

"I thought he was crazy," said businessman Steve Kaplan of Oak Tree Capital, who was involved in some of the deals Bennet helped negotiate.

But those who know him best weren't surprised he followed his heart, not his wallet.

"Ultimately, it didn't scratch his itch," said Nick Worth, a childhood friend who runs a technology and creative services company in Los Angeles. "He wanted to get back to public service. He made an enormous financial sacrifice to do it. Very few people would have done that."

Enlightening table talk

Bennet's first taste of public service came early.

He was born in New Delhi while his father, Douglas Bennet, was serving as an aide to Chester Bowles, then the U.S. ambassador to India.

He grew up in Washington, his childhood a who's who of Democratic Party luminaries as his father served as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others.

Dinner-table discussions revolved around politics, foreign policy, world affairs, with most of the talk between Michael and his father.

"I was kind of an observer," said Michael's younger brother, James, today chief of the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times.

At school, however, Michael was sometimes overshadowed by James, who, though 16 months younger, was taller, a better baseball player and a straight-A student.

Michael took home a lot of B's, struggled to add fractions in math class, and was, according to his younger sister, Holly, a favorite of the girls because he was "cute and little and blond."

He was also the Alex P. Keaton of St. Albans, the college prep high school he attended in Washington, carrying a briefcase to class.

He carried Michael J. Fox's persona at home, too, screening movies before he'd let Holly watch them, complaining to his parents when she was playing a game with a boy.

He debated in government club, served as a page on Capitol Hill.

His friends called him Flobie, but nobody can really remember now how the nickname got started.

"It's lost in the mist of time, thank god," Bennet said.

When he got to Wesleyan, the school his father had attended in central Connecticut, life changed.

He grew about six inches. He immersed himself in his studies, focusing on history, and was elected president of the student government.

Four years later, he graduated with honors.

Though he would one day be considered very successful in the business world, his first venture — in the summer of 1985 — didn't exactly portend things to come.

Bennet, his brother, and a friend, John Schafer, opened Three Stooges Painting, a summerlong venture, during which the trio painted a neighbor's home as well as a dog and part of a lawn.

"We were stoogelike in how we went about things," joked Schafer, today a high school administrator in California.

The heart points to Denver

Bennet spent the first years after college learning about the inner workings of government.

He spent a year on a public affairs fellowship in New York City, studying city government. Then he accepted an offer from an old family friend, Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste.

Celeste, like Bennet's father, had been an aide to Ambassador Bowles in India. He offered Bennet a job as a personal assistant.

Though he wasn't yet 25, and though Bennet, in his own words, was little more than a "bag carrier," he got an inside look at the machinations of a governor's office.

"He absorbed it like it was his mother's milk," said Celeste, now president of Colorado College.

Also on Celeste's staff was Marty Moe, who handled the governor's schedule and was the same age as Bennet.

Moe, now executive director for business development at America Online, remembered his first impression of Bennet: extremely sharp, mature beyond his years, self-confident but not arrogant.

Bennet left in 1990 for Yale Law School. He served a stint as editor of the Yale Law Journal before graduating in 1993.

While he was clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Baltimore, he went out on a blind date with Susan Daggett, a fellow Yale grad.

After they'd dated for three months, Daggett accepted a job with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Montana and headed west to Bozeman. Bennet had accepted a job at a big Washington, D.C., law firm, Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, but delayed his start so he could go to Montana for a few months.

While Daggett worked, Bennet passed his time at the local library, reading magazines. Or he fished.

Eventually, he returned to Washington to begin the job. And he was miserable. "From the minute I started, I knew I didn't want to stay," Bennet said.

Bennet left the law firm and went to work for Jamie Gorelick, then the U.S. deputy attorney general, first as a sort of trouble-shooter and later as counsel.

"He's fabulous," Gorelick said. "He's both hard-nosed and lovely to work with."

As part of his job, Bennet wrote speeches for Attorney General Janet Reno.

By 1997, Bennet and Daggett had decided to get married.

He left the Justice Department for Connecticut, where he took a position as a special assistant United States attorney.

As their fall wedding loomed, Daggett was offered a job in Denver with the Sierra Club.

Bennet started looking for work.

An artist of the deal

At the same time Bennet was sending his resume to Hickenlooper, he sent it to an acquaintance in California, who passed it on to Phil Anschutz, the Colorado mogul whose worth is measured in billions. Anschutz saw something on that resume, and he invited Bennet to come to Colorado for an interview.

Bennet met with Craig Slater, one of Anschutz's top advisers. Slater asked Bennet if he had an interest in business growing up, if he could read a prospectus.

"No, not really," was Bennet's answer.

"Can you analyze a balance sheet — are you good with numbers?" Slater asked.

"I don't really know," Bennet answered.

Anschutz didn't care. He wanted to hire Bennet.

It didn't matter to him that Bennet didn't have experience. It didn't matter that Bennet was an avowed Democrat while Anschutz had a reputation as a conservative Republican.

It didn't matter even that Bennet was engaged to a lawyer who sued guys like Anschutz.

The hire may have seemed unconventional, but not to Celeste.

"It's not about math," Celeste said. "It's about people, and Phil Anschutz understands that. He could get a lot of people who could do math. He couldn't get a lot of people who understood and could persuade people."

Despite his initial skepticism, Slater liked what he saw in Bennet.

"When you told him to do something, it got done," Slater said.

In 1999, Bennet helped organize his first big deal, the acquisition of an oil company's debt. By the time it was done, Anschutz's investment had tripled.

Then he oversaw the purchase of the debt of three large movie theater chains and took them through bankruptcy. Anschutz emerged with control of them and later added a fourth, making him the biggest movie theater owner in the world.

The deals gave Bennet financial security and earned him the respect of those he sat across the negotiating table from.

"At the end of the day," said Kurt Hall, one of the chief executive officers of Regal Entertainment Group, "he's one of the guys that I can count on one hand that I've dealt with in the investment world that have character."

Quick successes with city

Michael and Susan married just before he took the job with Anschutz, and she thought their stay in Denver might be relatively short.

"He was an East Coaster through and through," she said.

She figured they'd spend a couple of years here, build their credentials and then head back to more familiar territory.

But the couple fell in love with Denver. It wasn't long before he was giving out-of-town visitors tours of the city as if he'd lived here all his life.

They bought an old house in Park Hill and refurbished it, then moved to the Congress Park neighborhood.

And they had two daughters, Caroline and Halina.

Something else happened along the way.

"He ended up being really much happier in the job than I ever imagined he would be," Daggett said.

Last fall, Hickenlooper called. The restaurateur had decided to run for mayor of Denver, and he wanted Bennet to help him.

The two had met at a dinner party a couple years after Hickenlooper got — and ignored — that first letter from Bennet. A friendship had developed. Bennet kept his day job, advising Hickenlooper on the side.

"In the beginning, he really just gave me good general advice," Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper's candidacy caught fire, blazing right to city hall.

One day, he was talking to Bennet, lamenting the difficulty of finding a chief of staff.

"Well," Bennet responded, "you must not think that I'd be good at it."

Hickenlooper had never considered that Bennet might walk away from Anschutz.

"Well," Hickenlooper said, "if I asked, would you consider it?"

"Yeah," Bennet said, "I'd consider it."

"Well," Hickenlooper said, "if I asked, would you do it?"

"Probably."

Leaving Anschutz meant leaving behind a lot of money. But he did it.

James Bennet wasn't surprised.

"I think he went there to gain a certain kind of experience and discover if the business world was really for him, and make some money for his family," he said. "And he did all those things. And I'm actually kind of proud of him for not getting trapped in that."

When Hickenlooper took office on July 21, Bennet got to work on what, at the time, looked like tough tasks — balancing the city budget, changing Denver's charter so that the system for paying municipal workers could be overhauled, coming up with new agreements with the airport's two major airlines, United and Frontier.

A little more than four months later, the minefields have been negotiated.

Bennet was heavily involved in the budget and charter work and, along with economic development director John Huggins, handled much of the negotiations with the airlines.

Not exactly a GQ model

Bennet leans back in an oak chair in his office on the third floor of the City and County Building. The room, just off Hickenlooper's office, has a view of Civic Center Park, but there's nothing ostentatious about it.

Family photographs, a plaque, his U.S. attorney's identification, a Ted Williams advertisement and notebooks fight for space on the windowsill. An Adlai Stevenson paperweight — "20 bucks on e-Bay" — sits on the desk cluttered with papers and an old coffee cup.

Bennet is — in the words of friends — rumpled. His tie lurches to one side. His white shirt is not exactly all tucked in. His shoes are scuffed and worn.

But it's all in keeping with his personality.

He's notoriously frugal. Some of his friends even call him cheap. You don't have to look further than his driveway. The family cars: A Saab 95 and a Jeep Cherokee, both of them purchased used.

These days, there are long hours and mind-numbing meetings at City Hall.

But ask him what has been the most fun, and this is the answer you get:

"It's all been fun."

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